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Arch celebrates 44th anniversary of Topping Out Day with a 'Meet the Builders' event

Vito Comporato, right, and another worker during the construction of the Gateway Arch.
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Archives

On the morning of Oct. 28, 1965, ironworker Vito Comporato peered down from atop the Gateway Arch and watched what looked like hundreds of ants gathering on the riverfront 630 feet below.

There were Boy Scout ants with American flags and busloads of the city's schoolchildren ants.

The mayor ant was down there, too, probably with the rest of the VIP ants on a dignitary platform the size of a twig.

Out on the river, steamboat ants were tooting in celebration.

It was Topping Out Day, and the spectator ants had turned out in force to watch the ironworkers -- way up there -- ease the final 10-foot triangular section of stainless steel into place, joining the two monster legs that had been rising skyward on the west bank of the Mississippi since early in 1963.

"There were helicopters and airplanes; it was pretty exciting," Comporato said. "The city of St. Louis seemed to really enjoy being there."

Comporato, then 26, was the radioman atop the structure that morning, directing crane operator Bill Quigley on the ground. Quigley worked from inside a shed and couldn't see a thing that was going on outside.

"The only person he was getting to talk to was me," Comporato said. "I was his eyes. I would try to draw him a picture of what was going on up there -- how close we were. Making sure everybody was safe. We took it slow and easy."

Forty-four years later, Comporato, 70, still marvels at Quigley's performance that day.

"He did a great job," Comporato said.

The day wasn't without its trials. The ironworkers used hydraulic jacks to force the curving legs apart wide enough for the last section, but the heat from the morning sun was expanding the stainless steel. The St. Louis Fire Department had to shoot water onto the structure's south leg to cool it down. But in the end, the last piece fit and the spectator ants celebrated below.

Until that morning, Comporato says he never had a clue that he was helping to build what would become a national icon.

"We knew we were working on something different and fun. It was a unique job and a great opportunity, but most of us were just happy to be working," he said.

A chance to meet the Arch builders

Every October, the Jefferson National Parks Association celebrates the anniversary of Topping Out Day by inviting the ironworkers, engineers and other tradesmen who helped build the Arch to participate in a "Meet the Builders" event.

Comporato says he is always amazed by the hundreds of people who will turn out for the occasion. They want to know what it was like to help build the tallest national monument.

"I meet people from all over the world," he said.

It took 900 tons of stainless steel to construct architect Eero Saarinen's dramatic memorial to the nation's westward expansion. The structure itself weighs 17,246 tons, according to the parks association.

The work was slow and tedious, with two crews working simultaneously on the north and south legs, Comporato said. Each of the 142 triangular sections was carefully hoisted into place by specially designed creeper derricks that had to be moved higher every third section. Each segment was painstakingly welded and then carefully inspected before the next section could be stacked on.

"The worst part of the job was the weather -- working up there in the hot and the cold," Comporato said.

The crews worked despite rain, sleet, snow -- and wind.

When completed, the Arch was designed to sway as much as 18 inches, but it takes a 50-mile an hour wind to move the top 1 1/2 inches, according to the parks association. But until the two legs were connected, Comporato said the structure sometimes felt like it was breathing.

"The legs moved all day long," he said.

'Most of us were happy to be working'

There were no fatalities during the Arch's construction -- and that is a testament to the skill of the workers, says Jack Wright, a field engineer on the project.

"Obviously, the ironworkers who were up on it every day took a lot of risk, and amazing to me, there were no serious injuries. They were cautious, and they were very good at what they did," he said.

Wright also likes to give credit to the "unsung heroes" -- the workers who worked inside the structure and never saw the light of day. He said the project took a lot of smart people working together in concert.

Wright worked for MacDonald Construction Co., the general contracting firm hired to construct the Arch. He also worked with the crews that prepared the construction site in the late 1950s while studying at the Missouri School of Mines, now Missouri University of Science and Technology.

He remembers hearing a lot of criticism during construction: Critics compared the Arch to McDonald's golden arches. Others suggested that it looked like a croquet wicker and that a mallet should be constructed on the east side of the river.

Wright says that he, like most of the workers, knew the project was unusual but he never expected that people would find the completed structure so mesmerizing.

"Most of us were happy to be working," he said.

Wright attends the annual anniversary celebration at the Arch and is touched by the interest visitors have in talking to the builders.

"It's overwhelming and almost embarrassing,'' he said. "They want to know, 'What did you do? How did you do it? Is your picture on one of these posters?' "

At age 70, Wright still works at his own company, Ladue Building and Engineering.

"An interesting thing about our industry is that you can always see where you've been,'' Wright said. "The Arch is a pretty good testimony to that."

A personal memorial

Time has thinned the ranks of the builders, and Comporato says he now views the monument in a different light.

"I live here in St. Louis, and when I go by the Arch, I think of all the men I worked with on it who have since passed away," he said.

When he visits the memorial he likes to mingle with visitors and listen to them talk among themselves about how impressive the structure is. The Arch cost about $13 million, and Comporato says that at the time he was working on it, he couldn't comprehend spending that much money on a monument.

"But it's paid for itself over and over in visitors and enjoyment," he said.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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